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The Shot Heard 'Round the NHL / Tucker's hit on Peca led to tighter control

Michael Peca never saw it coming. The Islanders captain

didn't notice Darcy Tucker barreling at him from the left side, dipping at the

waist in preparation for an explosive hip check. It was much too late when Peca

finally realized what was happening. He braced himself as Tucker's hip and

rear cut right through his legs and sent him flying.

The impact put enough stress on Peca's left knee to tear the anterior

cruciate ligament. He was done for the season and so, it seemed, were the

Islanders, who went on without him to lose the playoff series to the Toronto

Maple Leafs in seven games. The hit took place in Game 5.

Peca faced reconstructive knee surgery and six months of rehabilitation.

"When you have plays like that, it's a shame, because we don't need these

things in the playoffs," said Dallas Stars center Pierre Turgeon, who knows a

little about cheap hits, having suffered a shoulder separation when he was hit

from behind by the Capitals' Dale Hunter as he celebrated a goal in a 1993

playoff game. "It's fine to be physical, but that stuff is not called for."

The hip check arguably is the dirtiest allowable move in sports, one that,

despite being legal, can ruin a player's career.

Tucker's hit on Peca appeared so premeditated and vile that it ignited a

debate in hockey. Are hip checks too dangerous? Is the NHL doing enough to

protect players from getting hurt? Before current rules were instituted, were

players safer when they basically policed themselves?

Tucker was not even penalized for The Hit, which was deemed legal by the

on-ice officials as well as NHL officials who reviewed the play after the game.

But it certainly didn't go unnoticed. After an NHL playoff season filled

with four other vicious hits that resulted in serious injury (see chart), the

NHL acknowledged the problem at the general managers' meeting in Vancouver this

past summer.

Then, in September, league officials sent out their annual memo, entitled

"Player Disciplinary Procedures for the 2002-03 Season," to every GM and

player. It warned of a much stricter adherence to rules regarding dangerous

hits such as blows to the head and low hits like the hip check Tucker placed on

Peca.

"Everyone is on notice," the memo said.

The memo also said: "We intend to impose more severe discipline than in the

past, including suspensions where none might have been imposed in past

seasons. We intend to review any and all such acts."

For some reason - possibly to maintain the aggressive aura of the sport -

the league did not publicize these rule enforcement changes and refused to give

Newsday a copy of the memo. And the man responsible for discipline in the NHL,

Colin Campbell, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Another league official, who did not want his name used, would not say

whether Tucker's hit on Peca would have resulted in a suspension under the

newer, stricter guidelines. He did say it would have been at least a penalty

and game misconduct.

"The referee would have to make the call. You can't make the game vanilla,"

the league source said, explaining that the league simply wants to make the

hitters more accountable.

Tonight, all eyes will be on Tucker and Peca when their teams meet at

Nassau Coliseum for the first time since that brutal playoff series in which

Peca was lost and Kenny Jonsson suffered a concussion after being hit from

behind by Toronto's Gary Roberts.

Hitting is as much a part of the game as goal-scoring, but there exists a

fine and subjective line between clean and dirty hits, such as the hip check.

Active players most notorious for low-bridge hip checks are San Jose Sharks

defenseman Bryan Marchment and Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. Tucker

and Peca also are known hitmen, and on top of that, they've had a longstanding

and heated rivalry.

"It wasn't a dirty hit," Toronto GM Pat Quinn said. "I've been around a

long time and I've seen Mike [Peca] do worse to other people. We drafted Mike

out in Vancouver, so I've seen his act."

The league source contends that the situation involving Peca and Tucker was

a personal battle that got out of hand, not the result of one player looking

to "take out" an opponent's star player.

"Tucker wouldn't hit [Alexei] Yashin that way," the person said. "I think

there's a code."

The unspoken code is that hitters go after other hitters, not finesse

players.

Peca engaged Tucker in verbal sparring as the series started and mocked the

Leafs to the media. "They've got some guys that think they're bullies, you

know," Peca said.

Tucker was heard screaming at Peca from the penalty box in Game 3: "I'm

gonna take you out!"

Peca delivered a few hard hits on Tucker during the emotionally charged

Games 3 and 4 at Nassau Coliseum, and Tucker tried without success to retaliate

by goading Peca into a fight - a common practice since the instigator rule was

instituted in 1992-93. (A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an

altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major for

fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. A player is deemed an instigator when he

attacks or jumps his opponent and the opponent either is unable or unwilling to

defend himself.) Peca didn't take the bait and simply glared at Tucker as

officials escorted him to the penalty box.

"I hear the same rhetoric over and over," Peca said. "It's almost comical."

But after The Hit, nothing seemed funny as the Islanders' $20-million

captain lay on the ice at Air Canada Centre.

Peca returned to the Islanders' lineup three weeks ago, about two months

earlier than expected, but time will tell what impact the injury has on the

fast and gritty center's future.

"I don't know how in the long run it will affect his career," Islanders GM

Mike Milbury said, "but it certainly put his career in jeopardy."

Tucker has said very little about the incident, other than denying that the

hit was premeditated. "It was not a dirty hit," he said.

Others beg to differ.

"It was awfully close," San Jose Sharks GM Dean Lombardi said. "If you make

that a penalty, it's a different story. Maybe it should be a penalty."

Turgeon simply feels there was too much malice in the action and not enough

of a response by the league to discourage it. "The penalties have to be

severe," he said, especially "because it's the playoffs."

"It's a method for not just taking someone out, but to injure them,"

Milbury said. "I don't think there's a place for it in the game."

There is an argument that it no longer can have a place in the game because

of rules, such as the instigator penalty, that keep players from policing

themselves when a dirty hit is made.

"In the old days, a guy did something and he paid for it for a long while,"

said veteran tough guy Craig Berube, now with Calgary. "Those days are over."

The league official disagreed with the notion that the inability to pick a

fight with a dirty hitter has led to a greater number of dirty hits.

"The teams that are successful, they take the [instigator] penalty and

pound the crap out of the guy," the person said. "Then they kill the two

minutes [of penalties]."

To keep that kind of vigilante violence out of hockey, the NHL is trying to

tighten the screws on ugly hits. "We intend to review any and all such acts,"

the league memo continued. Will this lead to the extinction of the low hip

check?

Any hit at or around the knees is considered "clipping," according to the

NHL rulebook. Low hits now are reviewed more often by the league office and

subject to fine and suspension, even if a penalty isn't called.

A hip check usually is delivered by leading with one's hip into the thigh

or hip of another player. Anything lower than the thigh is considered dirty and

dangerous.

"I think they have to look at the hip check as a whole," Peca said in July.

"If it comes anywhere close to the knees, that's a pretty sensitive area."

Funny, then, that one of the first players this season to be penalized for

delivering a dangerously low hip check was ... Peca.

Zdeno Chara of the Ottawa Senators was standing alongside his team's bench

during the second period of a game against the Islanders Nov. 27 at Nassau

Coliseum when Peca clipped Chara in the knee and thigh. The 6-9, 240-pound

Chara crumpled to the ice and missed the rest of the game.

Peca immediately was assessed a five-minute major penalty for clipping and

a game misconduct because the hit resulted in an injury.

"After what happened to him last year, I never thought he'd do something

like that," a furious Chara said. "That was a cheap shot. He should know

better."

Three days later, when the teams met again, Peca screamed to Chara during a

break in the action: "You're 6-9, you shouldn't go down so easily."

How soon they forget.

Finishing Checks

Some hits that have caused serious injuries in recent NHL playoffs series:

May 30, 1996: Colorado Avalanche right wing Claude Lemieux checks the Red

Wings' Kris Draper from behind in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

Draper, a checking-line center, falls face-first into the boards and suffers

multiple facial fractures. The NHL fines Lemieux $1,000 and suspends him for

two games. He returns in time to raise the Cup with the Avalanche.

April 25, 2002 - The Bruins' Kyle McLaren jackhammers Montreal's Richard

Zednik in Game 4 with a shoulder hit that knocks Zednik out of the first-round

series. He suffers a broken nose, concussion, bruised throat and face cuts.

McLaren is suspended for the rest of the series, which the Bruins lose.

April 26, 2002 - The Islanders lose Kenny Jonsson to a concussion when

Toronto's Gary Roberts drills him from behind, sending him face-first into the

corner boards. Roberts earns a five-minute major for the hit but no additional

discipline. Jonsson does not return for the rest of the series.

April 26, 2002: Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Darcy Tucker crouches for a

dangerously low hip check against Islanders captain Michael Peca in Game 5 of

the first-round series. Peca suffers a torn ACL and is out for the rest of the

series, which Toronto wins in seven games. Tucker is neither penalized nor

suspended

May 9, 2002: Detroit defenseman Chris Pronger lines up Red Wings center

Steve Yzerman for a big hit, but Yzerman sees him coming and dips low. The move

undercuts the oncoming Pronger and results in a torn ACL in his right knee and

a wrist injury. Pronger isn't expected to return until late this season.

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